The truth(s) about being an editor

Everyone’s been edited, even if only to have a paper marked up in high school. So everyone thinks they know – excuse me; he or she knows – what editing is. But over the holidays, I met with an acquaintance who is seriously thinking of doing this for pay (“seriously”?), and she really didn’t know much about it. If you’re thinking along the same lines, you should know more than what you think you know, as the Firesign Theatre might say.

So let’s look at some myths and truths about editing these days. In no particular order:

1. Editors use green eyeshades, wear their hair in a bun, always speak perfectly, and go to bed promptly at 10 each night.

Nope. Green eyeshades are for bankers or accountants, right? Hair in a bun is librarians. (Kidding!) Who speaks perfectly? And … come on with the stereotypes already. Yes, I’m biased, but editors are some of the most interesting men and women I know. After all, writers and editors are smart, clever, and usually funny, and they get to learn something new every day and pick up the widest range of wacky information. When it’s time to play a game, you want them on your team.

2. Editors are English majors who know things like subjunctive tense and past participles.

Not necessarily. There’s little connection between majoring in English and being a good editor, as far as I can tell, besides a love of reading, which doesn’t force one to major in English. At my school, the English majors read novels (mostly Victorian, it seemed) until their eyes crossed. I majored in social science – twice – and played at the newspaper, University Union, and the choir. Plenty of other editors have similarly diverse backgrounds.

As for grammar, I’ve seen diagrammed sentences; they looked like math with words. Wasn’t that a square-root sign in there? No, knowing the names of obscure parts of speech does help, but it’s not 100 percent necessary. That’s not the sort of thing you’re going to get at school these days, anyway.

3. Editors lose their eyesight sooner than anyone else. Ever see one who doesn’t wear glasses?

Of course I have – young ones. Past the early forties, everyone needs contacts or reading glasses, and eventually contacts don’t work. Even Lasik can’t perform miracles. I wondered about this myself, but I’m pretty sure reading a lot doesn’t wear out your eyes – though doing it under the wrong conditions can’t help. If conditions are wrong, please do something about them.

4. Editors are always editing something; even off the clock, they can’t resist.

This is often true. One of my favorite images is a photo my former colleague Margie had of herself at Dan Quayle’s family mailbox, holding her thumb over the apostrophe in the sign “THE QUAYLE’S.” (Was it his personally? Marilyn’s? Ben’s?) I’ve been known to correct restaurant menus, and I’m not the only one at that. If the Washington Post ran every letter it got from readers (“real” editors and otherwise) about misspellings, bad grammar, and related mistakes, there’d be no room for letters on Iran, the budget, and Bo Obama.

5. Editors don’t make any money.

Wellllll …. I know plenty of people making a living at this. I also know too many who’ve lost a job at least once or who have moved on to something else. Yes, the news hole is shrinking. Yes, editing is often the first thing cut when the bean counters look around the newsroom or the spreadsheet. But you can take your eyeshade and your bun beyond a newsroom and work at a corporation, a startup, a nonprofit, a law firm, your kitchen table, anywhere “content” is created or processed. You can work on a tablet or a laptop, miles away from your boss, not just at a computer terminal anchored to the company desk.

So you’re not going to get rich, but you can make a living. You may just have to be creative about figuring out how. But creativity is part of what you like about this field, right?

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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